Theatre: Humans Acting Humanely?

My experience of studying acting while a seminary student in Chicago allowed me to explore the relationship between ministry and theatre in some very practical ways. I learned how to read a text, both exploring the intentions of the author and the characters in a narrative, as well as how to present the text in a way that engaged both the ear and the imagination of an audience. But my reflections on the relationship between theatre and theology surfaced later in my doctoral studies in liturgy—and they continue to this day. Now I am learning from my students. I just completed a study of theology and theatre with two students, a doctoral student, Karyn Grasse and a master’s student, Christopher Manus. Through our work together I have become more convinced of the theological content of the processes and events that comprise theatre and their impact on us as people, as well as people of faith.

I am becoming increasingly aware that a Christian understanding of a human person made in the image of the triune God necessitates our understanding ourselves as creatures in relationship—relationship with one another and with God.  The narratives of creation in Genesis, as pointed out by theologian Mary Aquin O’Neill, identify humanity as being created with an inherent need for relationship with another like ourselves. So our relationship with one another reflects God’s triune nature, having a “shared but differentiated nature,” as do the persons of the Godhead. Relationships—person to person, face to face—are not options. They are essential to who we are as human beings.

Yet in an increasingly virtual world we interact less directly, less ‘incarnately;’ some might even say less humanely. One such person is philosopher Paul Woodruff. In his book, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, Woodruff argues that one of the primary ways we are socialized into being human is through watching others, and being observed and corrected by others. Woodruff contends that in a world in which we are having less direct interaction with other human beings, theatre provides a context for the watching of human interactions and its evaluation in community. It affords us the opportunity to learn empathy and values and, in the end, become more ethical people. And the reason for its effectiveness in this area is that we are interacting with other human beings in physical—not virtual—proximity with one another. Theatre, from the perspective of the anthropological understandings of the Christian faith, can humanize us because of who we are at our core: relational creatures who learn by observation, imitation and evaluation.

My co-author and friend, Dale Savidge, has just posted a reflection on his recent experience of entering the world of applied theatre. In particular, Dale has begun working with individuals on the autism spectrum and enhancing their capacity for social interaction through theatre. Dale ponders about what this phenomenon says theologically about us as humans and the nature of God. My reflection on Dale’s blog post moves in a slightly different direction theologically, however.

Dale is a person of deep faith. It shapes the way he interacts with others in obvious ways. But I wonder how much his years of work in theatre have formed him as well? I wonder if his numerous theatrical productions, the countless suggestions and corrections to his students, have not fostered in him a sensitivity to others and a compassion that he would not have had otherwise? Is it possible that his life in theatre has tilled the soil of his spirit in ways that have allowed the seeds of God’s Spirit to have taken a deeper root than they otherwise might have? Is it possible that living in the world of theatre may have made Dale a deeper person of faith, more sensitive to the needs of others around him?

I am not intending to privilege theatre above all other forms of human interactions. Certainly social workers coaches, teachers, counselors, pastors all are on the front lines of direct human interaction. But in a world where human interactions are often filtered through the lens of electronic media, does the world of theatre and its developed disciplines of “watching and being watched” have heightened importance to people today? Maybe particularly people of faith? Even especially the training of our ministers, pastors and clergy? These are questions that I am currently pursuing. Your insights are most welcome.


Todd E. Johnson (Ph.D. University of Notre Dame) is the Brehm Chair of Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he is the lead professor in the new PhD concentration in Christian Worship.  Todd has recently co-authored a book on theology and theatre, Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue (Baker 2009).  An ordained minister, Todd is also an avid hockey fan, endurance athlete, and erstwhile music critic.


  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for these reflections, Todd, and I think you are correct in making connections between theatre and the process of cultivating the image of God. I think it is perfectly natural to single out theatre as a unique artform for cultivating personhood, because I think we are intrinsically theatrical (relational, role-playing, interactive, embodied) beings. There is something really powerful here for counteracting the residual anti-theatrical prejudice in the Christian tradition, and I really value your work for its contribution toward this goal. Thanks again, and I look forward to your continued reflection on these questions.

  • Jason Grasl says:

    I agree and know first hand the importance of “watching and being watched” in regards to encountering our own humanity, reflecting against others onstage as well as those in the audience. For people of faith, (I think) our worldview allows us to define this encounter/reflection in terms of how God wants us to experience, grow and apply said encounter. Even those without faith feel something, they just may not have the framework or desire to attribute their encounter/reflection to God.
    Stage actors live for those performances when they know they have connected with/affected (A) their fellow actors, (B) their audience, or (C) both. What is that connection? As a Christian believer and stage actor myself, I attribute those connections to honest moments of humanity (captured for all to see) which God designed for us to feel in the larger sense, in relation to Himself, each other and ourselves.
    Long ago, one of my acting teachers posed the question “What is the only reason anyone of of us ever goes to the theatre?” (By ‘us’, my teacher meant humans as a whole.) After many students, including myself tried in vain to answer with something profound, he gave us his answer: “In hopes of seeing ourselves.” I completely agree with that. We want to encounter or “watch” a true moment of humanity that we can apply or relate to our own life. If that’s true, then the theatre practitioners themselves should be some of the most spiritually and emotionally open and vulnerable people you’ll ever meet…and usually that’s the case. They understand the importance of the “being watched” part of the theatre relationship above and beyond the attention and the paycheck (which for theatre, isn’t that much). Theatre actors know they have the opportunity to reflect their own humanity toward other actors and toward the audience in the possibility of becoming a better human…a better version of the gift God gave us.
    Hopefully that didn’t sound too “Sorkin idealistic”.

    • Jason Grasl says:

      here’s an amended last sentence ending that I felt I needed to elaborate on…

      …Theatre actors know they have the opportunity to reflect their own humanity toward other actors and toward the audience in the possibility of becoming a better human, in community as God intended…a better version of the gift God gave us and hopefully moving closer to a community that glorifies God.

  • Justin Kosec says:

    As practitioners who develop drama as a worship art, my colleagues and I would second this emphasis on the special place of theatre.

    Each artistic medium generates meanings dependent on the materials that comprise the medium. Accordingly when drama is deployed effectively in worship, it generates meaning differently than other forms of art. Drama can be multivocal, can engage the full range of human emotions, and involves bodies in conversation throughout space and time.

    Because of this it accomplishes something drastically different than, say, a stained glass window. It can offer story and emotion, just as can congregational singing, but it accesses these differently than song. It can teach or reveal in a way similar to preaching, but when it involves two or more actors it can present a range of doubts, experiences, and perspectives unavailable to the singular preacher. And as these posts argue, drama shows people in community (imperfect though that may be), and when this arises within worship it can represent some sliver of the lived experience of a community in relationship with Christ, the scriptures, and the Church in all times and places.

    When it comes to worship art or theological discourse, drama does not offer something more essential or more true than others. And Wesley is right in noting that there is residual anti-theatre bias in the church. I would go a little farther, because this bias does not always exist as a remnant of a clear historical precedent. Perhaps at times this bias indicates that the theatre and the Church compete for some of the same real estate in the human soul: the intersection of culture and the spirit.

    But after centuries of enmity and ambivalence, I think we are finally swinging back the other way. Today the worlds of theatre and theology can share much productive conversation. I’m very excited to see what develops as we carry this conversation forward.

  • karyn grasse says:

    Thank you for this – your post touches on something that I have been wrestling with in regards to theatre: the importance of being present with and presentto another. The profound reality that within God’s own being is the experience of being present with and presentto speaks deeply to our nature as human beings. Both Woodruff and Dale’s work point to the reality that there is a positive exchange that happens that is unique to moments when people are present one to another. It is urgent that we understand the dynamics of this exchange, as cultural and technological advances push us away from person to person encounters. We are created not only to be in relationship, but to be in embodied, presence-full relationships. The intersection of theology and theatre has exciting implications for understanding what it is that makes us truly human.

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